Freedom of Expression

Blair’s move to the ECTR

Tony Blair, having stood down from his role as Middle East envoy, will now become Chairman of the European Council for Tolerance and Reconciliation.  The aspirations of this organisation are clearly both laudable and (increasingly) important:

The idea of the Council dates back to the International Stockholm Forum on the Holocaust organized by the Swedish Government on the 26-28 January 2000, which emphasized that the whole international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight such evils as racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

It fosters understanding and tolerance among peoples of various ethnic origin; educates on techniques of reconciliation; facilitates post-conflict social apprehensions; monitors chauvinistic behaviors, proposes protolerance initiatives and legal solutions.

But some of its proposals, it could be argued, go too far in their attempts to outlaw hate speech.  Here’s a link to their European Framework National Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance.  There’s much in this document which few reasonable people could disagree with, for example its assertion of the right ‘to change or opt out of one’s religion’ and its insistence that tolerance should not be extended to practices such as FGM.

More controversial are some of the penal sanctions they wish to see imposed.

Section 7. Penal Sanctions

(a) The following acts will be regarded as criminal offences punishable as aggravated crimes:

(i) Hate crimes as defined in Section 1(c).

(ii) Incitement to violence against a group as defined in Section 1(a).

(iii) Group libel as defined in Section 1(b).

(iv) Overt approval of a totalitarian ideology, xenophobia or anti-Semitism.

(v) Public approval or denial of the Holocaust.

(vi) Public approval or denial of any other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal.

(b)Juveniles convicted of committing crimes listed in paragraph (a) will be required to undergo a rehabilitation programme designed to instill in them a culture of tolerance

Carrots as well as sticks are held out:

(g)The production of books, plays, newspapers reports, magazine articles, films and television programmes – promoting a climate of tolerance – will be encouraged and, where necessary, subsidized by the Government.

Section 9. Mass Media (a) The Government shall ensure that public broadcasting (television and radio) stations will devote a prescribed percentage of their programmes to promoting a climate of tolerance, as per Section 8(f). (b)(b)

The Government shall encourage all privately owned mass media (including the printed press) to promote a climate of tolerance, as per Section 8(f).

Here’s a Gatestone Institute post from 2013 criticising the document and a more recent article on the same topic from the Guardian.

There are always tensions within any discussion of the ‘limits of liberalism’.  The ECTR’s insistence that one need not show tolerance to the intolerant could be used against their own agenda (although their brand of ‘intolerance’ is much more benign than the forms they hope to stamp out).  One symptom of the confusion surrounding the topic is the Guardian’s assertion that the document would seek to outlaw burqa bans. Presumably this was extrapolated from the ECTR’s emphasis on the need to guarantee ‘the freedom to manifest that religion or belief in worship, observance, rituals, rites, practice and teaching’.  However in fact the document excludes the full face veil from this provision:

Another example is that, given the need to fight crime, persons may not be allowed to cover their faces in public.

Although this caveat is introduced in response to security requirements, it could also have been introduced under this point:

Examples: tolerance does not denote acceptance of such practices as female circumcision, forced marriage, polygamy or any form of exploitation or domination of women.

There’s clearly a case for assuming that the full face veil might fall within the remit of the above clause. And the ‘exploitation or domination of women’ might take in a whole range of practices, including Page 3 girls, particularly given that ‘anti-feminism’ is identified as a form of intolerance comparable with racism in the document.